America is suffering from a teacher shortage — and it has done so for decades. The American education system can be particularly unkind to teaching staff, who tend almost universally suffer low wages, long working hours, scant budgets and various other indignities like complaining parents and rigid administrators. The system developed over time to create the educational environment that currently exists, and because education is consistently prioritized below other national concerns — and because teaching is largely considered “women’s work,” — government representatives continuously put off issues within the education system for another day. In the meantime, legions of teachers suffer in impossible work settings, and many quit in search of easier and more rewarding careers.
Yet, various factors of the current education environment are driving more and more teachers out of classrooms. Pandemic working conditions were worse for many educators, who were forced to balance both in-person and online classrooms while risking their health every day. Rates of burnout amongst educators has skyrocketed over the past few years — and special education classrooms are particularly hard hit.
Already a struggling department within schools across the country, special education is in desperate need of qualified and passionate teachers. Here’s why so many educators flee special education and why it might be the most rewarding teaching position in the entire American education system.
Special Education Is More Difficult Than General Education
Being a teacher in general education is undeniably difficult, but the challenges found in general ed are magnified and compounded in special education. Special educators share almost all of the responsibilities of general education teachers, to include drafting lesson plans, supervising classrooms and grading assignments, but they are managing students with much greater breadth of cognitive and behavioral capability.
Some students need special education because they have profound developmental delays that require intensive care throughout the school day; other students have relatively minor delays in academic performance that can be rectified with the resources available in special ed. Thus, special educators must be much more adaptable to their environment and their students than general educators are, and that adaptability requires more effort and attention both inside and outside the classroom. As a result, special educators often work even longer hours than teachers in general ed — which means they have even less time for rest and recovery.
What’s more, special education tends to require much more emotional work from educators. Because students in special education tend to pose unique behavioral challenges than general education students, teachers in special education must exercise more emotional restraint in the classroom. Unfortunately, this excess emotional labor can compound the issue above of insufficient relaxation time — leading to physical, mental and emotional burnout. Utterly exhausted by their work, many special education teachers simply cannot keep going and opt to leave the profession for a simpler job.
Special Education Is Not as Attractive to New Teachers as General Education
As many older teachers in general education are retiring and leaving in search of new work opportunities, young and eager educators are taking their place. Though rates of students pursuing education degrees are falling, many researchers report that the teacher shortage in general education is not quite dire because positions continue to be filled by willing new educators.
This is not the case for special education. Most school districts require a special educator to be uniquely qualified with a bachelor’s or master’s degree in special education, which allows for state licensing in this field. However, the challenges of working in special education are relatively well-known, even amongst students pursuing education degrees. Thus, must students interested in becoming teachers prepare themselves for careers in general education, which seems like a more rewarding position within the education system. Fewer and fewer students are pursuing the specialized degrees in special education, leaving students in special education with unqualified educators — or none at all.
That education degree students are not attracted to special education is concerning, but it is also heartbreaking. All students deserve the opportunity to learn and grow, and in many cases, the students in special education are more caring and enthusiastic about being in the classroom than students in general ed. The teacher shortage is causing students who need the most support to be left behind. Teachers who choose to work in special ed have the chance to work with a student population who desperately needs them — and in doing so, special educators can learn the true impact of their profession.